23 Apr 2012

A slightly different model (Tuscany, Italy - Day Five)

Looking back over the past few weeks in Italy there were certain trends that I have identified in hindsight. One of these trends was who I was hosted by in wineries depending on the region. In Alto Adige, Romagna and Valpolicella my hosts varied, in the latter two regions I was only there for a short time. In all of the other regions – or more specifically sub-regions – I was commonly hosted by a person of similar position. For example when I was in Friuli many of my hosts were one of the children of the owner/founder of the winery, who are now heavily involved with different elements of the business. When I was in Piedmont, more often than not I was hosted by either the winemaker or the owner/winemaker. In both of these cases the host is able to provide first-hand insights into the specifics of the winery, and are well prepared to answer any of my probing questions. As you could imagine, Tuscany is the most visited region in Italy by tourists, particularly English speaking tourists, and as such there are dedicated individuals to welcome these guests. In many instances this week I was hosted by these individuals, sometimes privately and sometimes with others. Because I have not only experience with wine education of this nature and also will continue to make this an important part of career, I don’t really mind listening in to different approaches to wine communication. Being somewhat selfish however, it is difficult to take a lot away from these experiences as most of the information provided I already know, and I don’t want to intervene too much on the tour. If I am honest I would think that wineries would take me a little more seriously than this, as I am not a tourist and am going to great expense to visit the region and winery. I don’t feel it is appropriate to ask for specific hosts as any invitation to visit is welcome, but I would hope that wineries I request to visit treat it as an opportunity. Montalcino is possibly the most beautiful part of Tuscany I visited, and the wines are out of this world, but unfortunately I didn’t learn a lot about this complicated wine and was a little disappointed at not being taken more seriously.

The fort of Montalcino
My first appointment for the day took me over an hour to find as I didn’t have the correct address and attempts to call failed due network connectivity problems. I was determined to visit as it is my favourite Brunello producer, and I was relieved to stumble across it because luckily the Montalcino area is quite small. The Fuligni estate was established in one of the best parts of the Montalcino region in 1923, and is one of the more historic estates. Four parcels of vineyards grow sangiovese exclusively on the 10 hectares at about 450m, but there is also a 2 hectare vineyard nearby that grows other varieties to make IGT wine. Low yields are achieved through the soil composition, climate and by very heavy crop thinning strategies. This is necessary not only to create the very concentrated nature of the style, but also as there are very tight restrictions on yield volumes in Montalcino, and sangiovese is a very vigorous variety. The viticulture in Montalcino is fairly consistent between estates because of this, and as such the major difference between wineries is how they are processing the fruit. The philosophy at Fuligni is to be gentle with the ferments and macerations, extracting soft velvety tannins. This is particularly important as very little new oak is used and larger casks are favoured over barriques. In my opinion this is a better expression of the site, and is a more Burgundian approach. Naturally the laws determine the minimum amount of ageing wines must have in barrel and bottle, but Fuligni like all the best estates exceed this to allow the wine to be more approachable upon release.

One of the Fuligni vineyards
One of the interesting things Fuligni does is to classify one vineyard as destined for the Rosso di Montalcino, rather than declassifying potential Brunello wine. This wine comes from the Ginestreto vineyard, sitting lower than the other parcels, and with younger vine age. The 2010 had a countenance that is very smooth and bright with cherry and cranberry fruits, great finesse and crispness, fantastic balance that will develop nicely over the next few years. The Brunello di Montalcino is a blend of the other vineyards, and is kept for three years in barrel and up to two in bottle. The 2007 vintage has recently been released, and had a dusty stalky delicate raspberry character, and whilst very dense and tannic is opulent and mellow with some toasty dark chocolate. This wine actually reminded me of some of the Barolos I had tasted the previous week. The wine of the Vinitaly fair was without doubt the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2006, which I was very happy to have another opportunity to taste. This time is showed as very reductive and stinky in the classic mould, but opened out to express wild cherries and tomatoes, very intense and velvety on the palate, focused and expressive with gentle yet firm complex tannins. Truly a wine for the ages.

A winemaker from Arizona joined us for a tour and tasting
On the other side of Montalcino but actually the same side of the hill, is Poggio Antico. This is one of the best known Brunello producers in the United States, as they regularly rank in the Wine Spectator Top 100. The owners Paolo Gloder and Alberto Montefiori have sunk some serious time and money into the development of their estate, planting 32 hectares of vineyards and building one of the most modern winemaking facilities in the region. Amazingly the 32 hectares only provide them with 100,000 bottles per year, which doesn’t quite add up. When you consider they are reducing the crop by 50%, and the fact that they have very low natural yields on the site, the concentration intensity and quality of the fruit is outstanding. The cellars are where the style is really expressed. Gentle but long extraction of the tannins from the skins means a robust wine that then is transferred into barrels. Poggio Antico tends to use more small-format barrels, and a larger proportion of new oak. They leave the wines in barrel for longer to provide better integration of the oak characters, and a good amount of bottle age as well. There are four wines that are exclusively made from sangiovese, with the famous Altero adding an additional style to the range for which the winery has garnered high scores. More recently two ‘super tuscan’ blends have joined the range, made from sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. According to the Bibenda Wine Guide to the Finest Italian Wines, their stance on using more oak is highly appreciated; they feel they do not yet express enough personality. In tasting the wines I would tend to agree, however they have established a reputation in the United States with these wines and they are exactly to the taste of this market, so why change it.

A tour amidst the fermenters at Poggio Antico
The tasting led off from the Rosso di Montalcino 2009, which had a stalky cherry and pomegranate juiciness on the nose, coupled with approachable gentle tannins and full flavours on the palate, with some nice blackberry fruit sweetness. The Brunello di Montalcino 2005 had an oxidative banana skin oak note on the nose, with chocolate, tar, blackberry and raspberry liquorice, and whilst soft and broad was a little hot at the moment, and will need some more time in bottle. The Altero of the same vintage was a much better wine, showing more exuberance and integration, the oak reacting better to the conditions of the vintage. On the nose it of course showed toasty caramel and aniseed notes, but was showing some slight fennel notes as well, dense and powerful tannins and fruit with some earthy complexity and plenty of life left. The Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2003, not a strong vintage, was looking good now but won’t hold up for much longer. On the nose it showed charred wood and smoky spiced notes combining with salty caramel, pruners and crushed violets. On the palate were powerful tannins and warm oaky texture, and was decidedly more new world in style. The Madre is a blend of 50% each of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, and the 2006 vintage expressed the volcanic nature of the soil, with complex salted liquorice and blackcurrant, herbal tea and savoury elements adding depth. The first release of the Le Martine is the 2010 vintage, and it is 50% sangiovese, 25% cabernet sauvignon and 25% petit verdot. It was a very soft and mellow yet tight wine, showing sweet oak and fruit tannins combining with plum, blueberries and raspberries, but also had a slight bruised character to the wine, making it look a little simple.

Sweet sweet ambrosia
The final winery I visited is one of the most historic in the region, but also one of the smallest. The Costanti family have been in Montalcino since the 16th century, and have been heavily involved with the politics and development of the area since they first arrived. One of the huge influences they had on the region was the identification of the potential for 100% sangiovese wines, and they were one of the first to produce Brunello in this model. The Costanti brand was also one of the first to be taken out into the world, and amongst others put Italy on the global map for high quality wine production. Since the heyday of the 1970s there are significantly more wineries in the region, but the family haven’t changed much. The commitment to working with nature to capture the best fruit possible and then express it in the wines the best they can has always been of utmost importance. They know they have some of the best vineyards in the area, and aren’t interested in purchasing or planting more than the 12 hectares they have, which provide them with less than 60,000 bottles. They are also committed to the sangiovese grape, and only produce the classic wines of the region. The history is undeniable when you walk through the cellars hundreds of years old, and the care and attention paid to every aspect of the business is exemplary. In spite of this pedigree, they remain very humble and respectful, allowing the quality of the wines to speak on their behalf.

Wonderful old Costanti cellars
The Costanti Rosso di Montalcino 2010 had very bright floral raspberry tightness, with fresh fruit sweetness and generosity on the palate making it balanced, focused and approachable. The Brunello di Montalcino 2007 had that fantastic stinky reductive power, but also showed dried cranberries and spices with full bright yet soft tannins, balance and harmony with great focus down the middle of the palate. The 2005 vintage of the same wine had a lot more earthy development on the nose, but was also quite closed. On the palate it had developed suppleness and balance, and was wonderfully approachable. The Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2006 was very closed and needs a lot of time to soften out and open up. On the nose it combined earthy minerality with toasty black cherries, and whilst expressive and full, with time it will become more opulent as the very tight tannin structure mellows. The Riserva 2004 was probably the best wine I tasted in Tuscany, and with good reason as it came from one of the best vintages ever. The Costanti was exquisitely aromatic, combining delicate florals, juicy blackberries, red liquorice, delicate herbs and spices with a molasses character to boot. On the palate it was so gentle and rich, yet elegant, balanced and focused, and the classic faecal notes where hauntingly subtle to make it unmistakeably great Brunello.

Exquisite Costanti wines
Click here to see more photos from Day Five in Tuscany, Italy.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It seems like you had an awesome time. I'm going to Italy for the first time this summer. I am going to be staying at a Tuscany Villa Rental that I was recommended by some friends. I can't wait to experience the culture and great sight seeing opportunities.

    1. Your welcome Jake and thanks for visiting and reading. I hope you'll have an amazing time in Tuscany this summer, I'll be back in Melbourne and it will be winter there! Enjoy every experience, Italian culture and food is some of the best in the world in my humble opinion.